Talking Toons in Baton RougeA Report from Red Stick Animation Festival

The beautiful port town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is hosting the fifth edition of the eclectic, entertaining and all-around useful Red Stick International Animation Festival this week (April 22-25). Under the direction of Stacey Simmons, associate director for ecocnomic development at LSU Center for Computation and Technology, the fest has grown remarkably in the past few years.

‘Our state and city have long been known for good food and music, but we wanted to create a festival that showcased the combination of lucrative tax incentives, talented workforce, strong partnership with universities and innovate research underway that create exciting economic development opportunities in our capital city,’ says Simmons. ‘Attendance at the event has increased each year, and this year, we were pleased to receive a record-breaking number of entries to our Best of the Fest competition’421 films from 45 countries. Through Red Stick, Baton Rouge is becoming recognized as an up-and-coming market for this exciting and innovative field.’

This year, in addition to enjoying the wonderful local Creole food, crawfish expeditions and riverboat jaunts, animation fans can take advantage of a wide selection of screenings, informative panels on the state of the industry, workshops, digital technology updates, portfolio reviews by Disney and Electronic Arts and one-on-one pitch sessions to industry executives. How to integrate traditional and digital animation; analyzing the biology of Bolt, how to draw dinosaurs, creating the perfect pitch, mastering visual effects with 3ds Max, a look at the digital industry in Louisiana, the art of guerilla animation, video game development, and a preview talk about the making of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog are all part of the this year’s jam-packed workshops and lectures.

Screenings of animated features such as Nina Pailey’s Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, Bolt, WALL’E and Voices in the Dark are also part of the lineup. Comet Entertainment and Somuga’s new animated feature Around the World’for Free will also be having its world premiere here at the Manship Theater of the Shaw Center on Saturday evening.

First Session Highlight

I was lucky to catch two of the first-day panels at Red Stick on Wednesday. The morning session on ‘New Business Models’ was moderated by festival director Stacey Simmons and featured Leah Hoyer, director of current programming at Disney Channel, Erik Boland, manager of business development at Vuze and Catherine Branscome, founder of Branscome Intl. During the informative hour, the panelists discussed the ins and outs of finding the right animated properties today and how the availability of independently made content on the web has increased the chances of new talent to break into the market.

‘In the early days when I began at Disney Channel, we used to rarely take pitches from people who weren’t established writers or animators,’ said Hoyer. ‘Today, we look at popular acts at comedy clubs, comic-books, children’s books, art galleries, and of course, the web to find up and coming talent. When a series has a viral buzz, it’s like you have a build-in test market out there, and you can easily tap into what audiences want to see out there.’

Voland sited shows such as Sci Fi Channel’s Sanctuary and Afterworld as perfect examples of properties that started out on the web by indie outfits that became hugely successful with the 18-35 male audience, which is courted by Vuze. ‘People are still waiting to get the right answer for monetizing the web, but new models are popping up all the time,’ he pointed out. ‘We see indie content creators taking incredible risks. The less you have to worry about digital rights management, the more eyeballs you can get on your properties.’

Entertainment industry sales veteran Branscome also pointed out that because of this democratization of content, smaller outfits have a better shot of getting their work seen if the have original ideas that strike a chord with audiences. ‘I sell a collection of shorts by animator Bill Plympton around the world,’ she said, ‘and 25 years ago, when he created his first short, the only place you could see his work was in festivals. He’s an amazing self-marketer, he goes from festival to festival’and there’s a huge viral aspect about his world, because no matter where I go, I can mention his name, and if you know anything about animation, you instantly recognize it.’

Panelists then went on to offer their take on how to pitch to an industry development exec or buyer. ‘For a while, everyone wanted to get the next SpongeBob,’ said Hoyer. ‘Right now because of the popularity of Hannah Montana, Camp Rock, High School Musical, everyone is pitching shows about these four kids in a band who solve mysteries on the side. I don’t want to see any more shows about kids who want to be famous! If you’re new, the best thing you can do is bring something that is very different’whether it has a unique art style or a main character that’s very fresh, or it has a very special dynamic.’ She added that because Disney has a famous wholesome family image, many of the pitches tend to be too soft. ‘It’s about entertainment’don’t be afraid to push the envelope’we’d much rather have something that has too much edge.’

Brancsome also emphasized the importance of being able to wrap your pitch in two minutes. ‘Everybody is busy and nobody has time to show you how it’s done, so it is important for you to be able to really articulate your idea in a few minutes. Also, whatever you show them, make sure it’s perfect. The bar has been eally raised.’

Boland echoed her suggestion and explained that because Vuze is a High-def channel, animated content done in HD really makes a big impact on him. ‘In a few years time, everyone will have High-Def content online, and you’ll be ahead of the curve if you spend a few more hours and create your content in High Def.’

Another point raised by the panelists was that once you have a meeting with a decision-maker, it’s important to sell yourself along with your project. ‘There have been times when I came out of a meeting completely dazzled by a person’s energy and personality,’ noted Hoyer. ‘But after a few hours, I thought, ‘Wow, that wasn’t such a great concept. But even if the project doesn’t go, you will always remember that person so when something else comes along, you can call that person and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got something else for you.’ Once you option a pitch, you are optioning the idea and the talent who’ll be executing it. SO it’s important for you to show us what you can do. If you’re a writer and don’t have good art, don’t worry. This is Disney, we’ll find a good artist for your show!’

When asked about the worst pitch she’d ever received, Hoyer responded, ‘It was a show about a cross-dressing butcher!’ without missing a beat.

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